EVERETT — Ty Trenary didn’t create the problems at the Snohomish County Jail, but he’s trying to fix them.
He’s hired an on-call doctor and changed booking procedures in hopes of identifying inmate health problems before they become deadly. He’s assigned some of his most trusted command staff to tackle jail troubles, including concerns about cleanliness and spiraling costs.
The newly minted sheriff in Washington’s third-largest county — barely three months into his new job — also finds himself starting what promises to be an uncomfortable conversation.
Snohomish County needs to change how it uses the jail, Trenary said.
“We’ve stressed the facility because we try to fill every bed,” he said.
While working to address concerns about a string of eight inmate deaths since 2010, Trenary has begun talking with community leaders about using the 1,200-bed jail differently.
He wants to bring the average daily population at the jail down by about 125, to 1,025.
The community no longer can afford to use the jail as the de facto hospital for people with mental illnesses who are facing minor, nonviolent offenses, Trenary said. It also needs to take a hard look at the dollars and sense of contracts that allow Seattle, Bellevue and more than a dozen other neighboring communities to book prisoners there for a fee. He’s concerned that some of the contracts, which account for roughly 115 inmates daily, aren’t covering the county’s costs.
For now, the sheriff is talking mostly with the experts about reforms aimed at protecting inmate health without compromising security. He’s already put some changes into place while awaiting recommendations from the National Institute of Corrections. At the request of the sheriff’s office, the federal experts have made multiple visits to inspect jail operations and medical care.
The national institute’s Sept. 16 report on jail operations found several weaknesses, including questions about the jail’s handling of mentally ill inmates and booking practices.
A report focused solely on medical services is pending. Trenary predicts it will be more critical.
“We know the medical report that is coming is going to be the worst document yet,” Trenary said.
Regardless, the scrutiny already has had benefits, Trenary said.
A focus on extra vigilance was evident late last month when an inmate was whisked off to the hospital after showing signs of illness.
Bothell police brought the man, 43, to the jail on a domestic violence warrant Sept. 27. He appeared to be drunk and was uncooperative, according to jail records.
As a result, he couldn’t be formally booked into the jail. Instead, he was placed in a mental health observation unit to be more closely monitored by medical professionals throughout the weekend while he awaited his court appearance.
The man remained uncooperative for the next two days, sitting on the floor talking to himself.
A corrections deputy reported concerns. The inmate was placed on an alcohol detox watch. A nurse was consulted.
When the man showed signs of physical distress, he was taken to Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. He remains in the hospital, where he has been listed in critical condition. He’s receiving treatment for serious complications related to withdrawal from a severe alcohol addiction.
For jail staff, the incident was an important reminder of “why we can’t just rely on self reporting” when it comes to inmate medical issues, sheriff’s office spokeswoman Shari Ireton said.
In the past, the jail has depended on inmates to come clean about their health problems and addictions. Now, Trenary’s team has reallocated staff so that a registered nurse screens inmates prior to booking.
To Trenary, 48, what happened with the Bothell man was an example of “where this process needs to be.”
The Snohomish County Council picked the Stanwood man to become sheriff in July. The appointment came after the May 31 resignation of former county executive Aaron Reardon, which set in motion some political musical chairs.
Prior to being appointed sheriff, Trenary had no corrections experience. He had worked at the sheriff’s office in a number of roles for more than 22 years, rising to the rank of captain overseeing the sheriff’s office north precinct. From 2008 to 2012, he was the police chief in Stanwood, which contracts with the county for police services.
The sheriff’s job became vacant June 3 when John Lovick resigned to replace Reardon in the county executive job. Before leaving the sheriff’s job, Lovick had asked the feds for help after two high-profile deaths involving inmates who were both in their 20s.
Lovick, a former state legislator and retired Washington State Patrol sergeant, took over responsibility for the jail in 2009 after the County Council decided the sheriff’s office would be better suited to oversee jail operations. Previously, the jail was under Reardon. As was true of other county executives before him, Reardon struggled to keep the corrections department from regularly blowing its overtime budget and its union corrections officers from filing frequent grievances about working conditions, management and safety.
Although Lovick initially was able to curb overtime and improve morale among corrections deputies, many of the old problems have resurfaced.
The jail also has come under fire from some city of Everett elected leaders, who have tired of seeing inmates gathering downtown after being released.
Trenary said he’s begun talks with mental health providers and service agencies about better coordinating efforts to connect inmates with programs that may reduce their risk of return before they are released from the jail.
He also is working on language to require out-of-county agencies to retrieve upon release the prisoners they send to Everett.
“Anybody who brings inmates to us must pick them up and bring them back,” Trenary said.
Meanwhile, the sheriff is focused on making changes that address the perception that the jail in Everett is a particularly risky place to serve time.
The numbers speak for themselves. Most of the deaths since 2010 have involved inmates who arrived with serious health problems or ended their lives as a result of suicide or substance abuse. The exceptions are troubling. Bill Williams, 59, struggled with mental illness. He was arrested for shoplifting in Everett in September 2012. He collapsed and died during booking after being shocked twice with an electronic stun gun.
Lyndsey Elizabeth Lason, 27, died at the jail in 2011 when her infected lungs slowly filled with fluid. A $10 million wrongful death claim is pending.
Another $10 million claim is pending in the death of Michael Saffioti, 22. The Mukilteo man died at the jail in July 2012 from bronchial asthma triggered by severe allergies.
Saffioti was booked into the county jail as a courtesy because people were concerned his health problems would pose a greater risk in the Lynnwood city jail. A judge there had ordered Saffioti locked up for misdemeanor marijuana possession.
The sheriff’s office has learned from reviewing the jail deaths.
If somebody has medical issues severe enough that their life is at risk in another community’s jail, they shouldn’t be booked by Snohomish County, Trenary said.
“We will never do that again,” he said.
Scott North: 425-339-3431, firstname.lastname@example.org.